The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees HANO, announced that it had approved the application for demolition of 4,500 units of the aging brick buildings that have housed the city's poor for more than a half century.Mixed-income housing, along the lines of River Garden, will replace the four housing developments. As HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson said in November 2005, “We are not going to build traditional public housing anymore.”
Within two to three months, wrecking crews will descend upon the so-called "Big Four" developments: C.J. Peete in Central City, St. Bernard in the 7th Ward, B.W. Cooper off Earhart Boulevard, and Lafitte, which borders Treme.
In New Orleans, when you tear down a building, you are never just tearing down a building. Let’s see exactly how we built “traditional public housing” in New Orleans.
Lafitte Housing Development, built in 1941:
B.W. Cooper Housing Development, first phase (red) built in 1941, second phase (pink) in 1954:
C.J. Peete Housing Development, first phase (red) built in 1941, second phase (demolished in 2004) in 1955:
St. Bernard Housing Development, first phase (red) built in 1942, second phase (pink) built in 1943:
Iberville Housing Development, built in 1941, but not set for demolition:
Notice the layout of the first phases of the housing developments built in the 40s. The New York Times noticed in November 2006:
Built at the height of the New Deal, the city’s public housing projects have little in common with the dehumanizing superblocks and grim plazas that have long been an emblem of urban poverty. Modestly scaled, they include some of the best public housing built in the United States.The second phases, and the housing developments constructed after the 40s, do not embody those New Urbanist ideals quite as much in their layouts. Wanting to change that, HUD and HANO demolished some public housing and rebuilt it based on some of those ideals.
But if the sight of workers dynamiting an abandoned housing complex was a cause for celebration in Chicago’s North Side, the notion is stupefying in New Orleans, whose public housing embodies many of those same New Urbanist ideals: pedestrian friendly environments whose pitched roofs, shallow porches and wrought iron rails have as much to do with 19th-century historical precedents as with late Modernism.
More specifically, they were inspired by local developments such as the 1850s Pontalba Apartments and late-19th “Garden City” proposals, whose winding tree-lined streets and open green spaces were seen as an antidote to the filth and congestion of the industrial city.
The low red-brick housing blocks of the Lafitte Avenue project, in the historically black neighborhood of Treme, for example, are scaled to fit within the surrounding neighborhood of Creole cottages and shotgun houses. To lessen the sense of isolation, the architects extended the surrounding street grid through the site with a mix of roadways and pedestrian paths. As you move deeper into the complex, the buildings frame a series of communal courtyards sheltered by the canopies of enormous oak trees. Nature, here, was intended to foster spiritual as well as physical well being.
That care was reflected in the quality of construction as well. Solidly built, the buildings’ detailed brickwork, tile roofs and wrought-iron balustrades represent a level of craft more likely found on an Ivy League campus than in a contemporary public housing complex.
They would be almost impossible to reproduce in the kind of bottom-line developments that have become the norm.
St. Thomas Housing Development, now River Garden:
The St. Thomas, built in 1941, was a contemporary development with the first phases of the four set for demolition. I can not find a map of the original development online. I assume its layout was similar to its contemporary developments. If so, the new River Garden as a housing development looks less appealing from above than the courtyards and walkways of the 1940s developments.
Desire Housing Development, now the New Desire; the Google map is old but you can see the layout of the new development:
Fischer Housing Development, the old high rise was demolished for the new Fischer homes (yellow) and the old Fischer low-rise complex (blue) is still there – once again, the Google map is old but you can see the layout:
Guste Housing Development, the new Guste homes (yellow) and old complex (blue), including the high rise – once again, old pics:
Why do I point this out? In another article written in February 2007, the NY Times explains:
The housing agencies’ tabula rasa planning mentality recalls the worst aspects of the postwar Modernist agenda, which substituted a suburban model of homogeneity for an urban one of diversity. The proposal for “traditional-style” pastel houses, set in neat little rows on uniform lots, is a model of conformity that attacks the idea of the city as a place where competing values coexist.New buildings alone will not accomplish the mixed-income housing that HUD desires. And new buildings aren't automatically better than the old ones.
This is reinforced by the plan’s tendency to isolate the new housing from the rest of the city. Often arranged along dead-end cul-de-sacs, the proposed developments lack the mix of big and small buildings, residential apartments and retail shops that could weave them into the surrounding urban fabric.
The point is not to return people to the same housing conditions that existed before Hurricane Katrina, but to distinguish between failures of social policy and design policy. Architects can’t determine the economic mix of residents in public housing developments nor provide education and health services. Their job is to give physical form to social and cultural values.
If anything, the sturdy period construction of the older projects are the neighborhoods’ biggest asset. Like the old warehouses that attracted residents to the Warehouse District, so, too, could the older and better-planned projects, once renovated and modernized, possibly attract new residents and certainly could adequately house former residents.
If HUD wants to tear down anything, it could focus on the blighted housing scattered throughout the city. A lot of that existed before the storm. HUD could demolish those buildings and put up as many pastel-colored houses as it wants, at the same time contributing to the recovery of various neighborhoods by removing rundown property and replacing it with new development.
"Traditional public housing" in New Orleans is worth saving. A different issue is how public housing is traditionally managed in New Orleans. That is what needs to be changed.
[ADDED] Clay in the comments offers up this related link.